Once again, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has found himself in a position to which he seems to be growing accustomed -- politically embarrassed, under fire and in retreat.
At issue this time was his administration's request for a $1.5 million taxpayer-funded bailout of a failing company owned by one of his longtime supporters. After Republicans attacked the proposal, Mr. Glendening's top economic development official withdrew it Thursday, all but conceding that it had been a mistake.
For the governor, it was just the latest of several political missteps during his 4 1/2 months in office. The episode has left some observers wondering why Mr. Glendening, a political science professor widely regarded as bright and savvy, continues to make what many in Annapolis consider elementary mistakes.
"I'm surprised, and probably a lot of political observers and politicians are surprised, by the political ineptitude," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy sciences at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "And if it continues, it will continue to erode his credibility and his ability to achieve the good he wants to in office."
Some attributed the governor's latest gaffe to an overly zealous concern about preserving his narrow base of political support. The business he proposed salvaging, Stephens Engineering Co., in Mr. Glendening's home county of Prince George's, one of only three jurisdictions that gave him a majority in last year's election.
The company's owner, Wallace O. Stephens, is a prominent black businessman. Four of five black voters chose Mr. Glendening in November, helping to deliver both Baltimore City and Prince George's for him.
Others say Mr. Glendening seems to have been slow to adapt to the heightened level of scrutiny and legislative opposition as he has moved from Upper Marlboro to Annapolis.
"He's not the county executive of Prince George's anymore, in case he hasn't noticed," said Del Ali, a political pollster in Columbia.
The governor had no comment on those criticisms yesterday. A spokesman said he was at a reception in Ocean City with Eastern Shore economic development officials.
In reference to Mr. Glendening's occasional retreats, his deputy press secretary, Charles F. Porcari, said, "This is not a game where wins and losses are tallied. We seek consensus, whether it be with the business community, social services or the legislature, most importantly. And when we have it, we move forward."
The Stephens episode marks the third time Mr. Glendening has had to give ground in a politically embarrassing situation.
The first came in the opening weeks of his administration, when it became public that he and three top aides were to benefit from an early pension program that was about to start paying them $15,000 to $22,000 a year for life. After legislative leaders cried foul, the governor gave up the extra money.
In February, a reporter asked the governor to reveal the contributors to the fund that was paying his legal bills from the election challenge by Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
At first, Mr. Glendening refused. But after pressure mounted from legislators, he gave up the list -- revealing that a single Baltimore businessman had given him $90,000.
The episode began more than two months ago, when Stephens Engineering approached the state economic development agency requesting a $2 million grant and a $500,000 loan, according to an agency source. The software and networking services company in Lanham had relied heavily on government contracts and had fallen on hard times after losing several, Mr. Glendening has said.
But state officials said they could not help -- in part because the company already was in default to a private lender for more than $900,000.
So Mr. Stephens last month took his plea directly to Mr. Glendening, whom he had supported as county executive and to whose campaign he and his company had contributed $4,200. Sen. Decatur W. Trotter, who represents the district in which Stephens Engineering is located, also spoke to the governor's office.
Mr. Stephens, who is president of the Prince George's County Chamber of Commerce, held a powerful symbolic role. As county executive, Mr. Glendening had often touted him as a successful black entrepreneur.
Mr. Stephens' request put the governor in a difficult position, one county legislator suggested. The most obvious source of relief, the state's "Sunny Day Fund," traditionally has been used to lure businesses to Maryland, help them expand or keep them from going elsewhere -- not to keep troubled ones afloat.
"You have Wallace Stephens sitting there," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, a Prince George's Democrat. "You'd like to move him back to being a successful businessman. [But] how do you get that done within legal boundaries? You couldn't pay me to be the governor at that point."
The governor contacted Economic Development Secretary James T. Brady, administration officials have said, though no details have been offered. Mr. Brady then wrote legislative leaders asking them to approve a $1.5 million grant for the company. The initial response was overwhelmingly negative. Under pressure, Mr. Brady withdrew the proposal.
Timothy F. Maloney, a former Prince George's delegate and frequent critic of the governor, attributes Mr. Glendening's actions to his concern about being re-elected.
"Most people in public life have a set of operating principles and guidelines that govern their daily decision- making and help give them the sense to say no when it's hard to say no," Mr. Maloney said. "I think that Parris has been in a campaign mode for so long, perhaps he's lost a little bit of that."
While few had anything good to say about the administration's request for the bailout, at least one legislator, Senator Trotter, lauded it.
"I think the governor's instincts were good," Mr. Trotter said, "In .. my community at least, he gets high marks for making that effort."